A Recipe for Resilience: 10 Key Ingredients to Add to Your Mix

This post was originally featured in ARRS InPractice.

“This pandemic is really getting me down… I’m not sleeping well… Small things worry me constantly… My concentration drifts while interpreting studies… Antacids are taking care of my epigastric symptoms… Alcohol has become a necessary crutch to help me sleep… Everybody seems so needy around me… The media is driving me insane… The sense of loss overwhelms me at times… I cannot bear the thought of more Zoom meetings…”

Resilience. It’s a concept that predates the pandemic and one that we’ve heard about in personal development books, TED Talks, and leadership courses many times before. The word conjures a sense of unshakeable inner strength that’s impermeable to outside forces, like a giant African baobab tree—also known as the continent’s “tree of life”—during a torrential storm. You might define resilience as the capacity to recover and bounce back from adverse circumstances, such as those many of us are currently experiencing, as illustrated by the sampling of comments above.

It often feels like the pandemic swiftly derailed the pre-2020 tools and strategies we had introduced to our organizations to identify and combat employee burnout and support the collective health and wellness of our teams. While stressors have expanded and amplified, the concepts that were leading us on a path to healthier workplaces are still valid and valuable, particularly when it comes to resilience. With intention, practice, patience, and persistence, resilience can be learned, sustained, and strengthened; with resilience, we can emerge from our proverbial emotional basements, even during the most turbulent of weather.

Opening the Cookbook

While it’s not quite as simple as following a step-by-step recipe for your favorite meal, several key ingredients can help you develop resilience. Let’s explore 10 of them here.

  1. Take care of yourself, first and foremost: If you’re a leader, remind yourself of the airline analogy to put on your own oxygen mask first. Learn to practice mindfulness to slow down and reduce anxiety. Learn to focus on being intensely aware of your senses and feelings in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Be mindful, too, that you may be using unhelpful coping solutions. Try to eat healthily, sleep to rejuvenate, and exercise as best as you can, wisely. Doing so should boost your capacity for physical resilience. Consider strategies to boost your mental resilience, as well. How do you reignite your energy and creativity after challenging situations? Are you able to effectively disconnect? Build time into your schedule to recharge. Develop coping skills to help you manage stress, so that it doesn’t compound. One example of a valuable coping mechanism is laughter, which can reduce anxiety and increase our intake of fresh oxygen. Try to find ways to laugh each day, as part of your self-care practice. You can even find laughter yoga exercises on YouTube.
  2. When something is not quite right, recognize, acknowledge, and call it what it is: Stress. Anxiety. Overwhelm. Depression. PTSD. Whether it is a formal diagnosis from a care provider or a gut instinct that you have, it’s OK not to be OK. The pandemic is amplifying our national mental health crisis. Recognize and mourn your losses, no matter how big or small you think they are. Communicate openly and honestly about your current state of mind; don’t minimize or ignore your symptoms until they become intolerable. Share your concerns with your primary care provider, a licensed therapist, a trusted family member or friend, or a 24/7 hotline. If you are in a potentially life-threatening situation, call 911, or go to your nearest emergency room. Opening up and asking for help can be terrifying, but you are worth it. No one is alone here. Seek the support and care that you deserve and need.
  3. Find your sense of purpose: Develop your personal W-H-Y? Find intentional ways to connect to your larger life purpose and learn to savor them. What are your volunteer efforts? What does your charitable giving list look like? Altruism drives a sense of purpose and is a recognized trait of resilient individuals. Try to integrate your work and life effectively for you. Strive to be a realistic optimist and, rather than focusing on the negative, hone in on what you can contribute to your community, region, state, or country.
  4. Get connected: Establish and nurture a supportive social network. Who comprises your safety net? Whose safety net are you in? Help others to support and nourish you by building a social resilience community. Never be afraid to lean on your support systems, even if virtually. How did you build your support group? Do you have an online community? Develop positive and trusting relationships in which you can work together to endure and recover from stressors. By listening and hearing, we can be kind and compassionate to others when they need it most. Do a proverbial mitzvah!
  5. Find your resilience role models: On a personal level, I derive such joy and inspiration experiencing the resilience of my immediate family members. As a South African, it will also never cease to amaze me when I consider the remarkable resilience shown by Nelson Mandela. His endurance and persistence in the face of severe adversity were coupled with his ability to show emotional regulation, empathize, build connections, demonstrate self-efficacy, and stick to his guiding moral compass through authenticity. His favorite poem was “Invictus,” written by William Henley, which ends with the powerful line, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”  
  6. Seek to constantly learn and improve: Be coachable and seek feedback that you learn from and act upon. Seek this feedback from those sources most likely to be helpful to you. Recognize that change can be good, however inconvenient or uncomfortable. View so-called “failures” as learning and improvement opportunities and embrace them; activate your action plan, rather than dwelling on what might have been.
  7. Know what emotional intelligence looks like: Practice self-awareness by knowing your stress levels and noticing your emotions. Train your brain—build emotional intelligence, moral integrity, and physical endurance. To boost your emotional resilience, work on understanding, appreciating, and regulating your emotions, while consciously choosing your feelings and responses to avoid being reactive. Learn to become self-aware. This includes recognizing what drives your stressors. What pushes your buttons? Finding and sticking to your moral center may aid this journey.   
  8. Find ways to relax and decompress that work for you: Some examples include spending time with friends, pursuing hobbies, cooking, meditating, and listening to music. Each of these can be enjoyed in groups or individually, depending on what you prefer. As one example, photography is an art that can be practiced in mindful ways, shared with colleagues, and even used as a communication and connection tool. It might even influence your choice of travel locations and online connections. Surround yourself with positive energy. Misery doesn’t love company—find new ways to manage or even avoid adversities and adversaries. Have an executable plan to eliminate your blockages.
  9. Practice gratitude and self-compassion: Hardwire this into your daily activities list; it will help you to feel content. This might simply include journaling things that you are grateful for. You already possess a series of resiliency tools and have likely overcome adverse situations that you learned from. Your journey has already begun, and you have endured 100% of your worst days. Congratulate yourself for this.
  10. Reflect: This can go hand-in-hand with journaling. Simply put, sit quietly with the events and feelings of the day and see what comes up. Committing to creating the time for reflection allows one to build and increase self-awareness (an important component of emotional intelligence), encourages learning, and opens doors to being more adaptable. For events that occur, consider what happened, how it made you feel, and what lessons or new approaches you learned from the experience.

Sharing the Recipe

As a leader, your resilience impacts your performance, as well as the performance and engagement of your teams. Stressed leaders engage in fewer positive leadership behaviors, such as enunciating optimistic visions, setting and overseeing goals, communicating confidence, clarifying roles, showing genuine appreciation, and recognizing performance. Stressed leaders can become passive—they step in only when needed, tend to avoid decision-making, and can be emotionally absent. These attributes get noticed and impact teams. Resilient leaders can keep calm under pressure and develop additional skills (a component of posttraumatic growth) in the face of adversity. Through self-reflection and feedback, resilient leaders have a keen sense of the main components of emotional intelligence.

Resilient leaders can also regularly assess their leadership effectiveness and styles, more readily responding to change and unexpected situations. Striving to learn and grow continuously, resilient leaders are often purpose-driven individuals—they can visualize their work effort as being meaningful. Resilient leaders cultivate relevant and helpful relationships in their internal and external work environments that support them through tough times.

Why Is Resilience at Work Important?

Resilience shapes the way employees respond to the stress of change. It also relates to work engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Resilience is inversely related to the frequency and manifestations of burnout and can improve organizational and employee performance.

How Do We Recognize Resilient Behaviors in Others?

A spectrum of characteristic behaviors and skills is recognized under the resilience rubric. Many of these are also included under a larger umbrella of effective leadership behaviors. A person who manifests resilient behavior communicates clearly, thoughtfully, and consistently. Moreover, effective leaders may design a strategy for communicating and managing change that accounts for different stakeholders and their communication preferences. Resilient individuals are coachable, regardless of their position in a hierarchy, and many seek opportunities for learning and improvement. They are willing to embrace change, and, ideally, they’re skilled at managing it. Resilient individuals are comfortable saying, “I don’t know” (and “I would like to learn”). They know how and when to take bold risks or when to initiate new ideas. Similar to effective leaders, resilient individuals are willing to and do invest in the development and advancement of others.

Those with high levels of resilience are better equipped to cope with stressful situations. They tend to see change as an opportunity, are optimistic, adaptable, and realistic about realities, and engage colleagues for support. Resilient individuals possess emotional regulation skills and don’t allow stress to impede their functioning. They practice self-compassion to reduce harsh self-criticism, soothe difficult emotions, and find sources of motivation. Resilient individuals show cognitive agility, a difficult skill to develop, which entails shifting how one thinks about negative situations.

Let’s face it: It’s really difficult learning to become resilient. It takes time, persistence, effort, commitment, energy, and a drive to succeed. We do know that resilient teams are best served by resilient leaders. Now more than ever before, we need our imaging teams to function effectively. Our teams should be equipped with resilience to face ever-changing challenges and unanticipated adversities, and whether they are or not begins with us as leaders.

About the Author

Jonathan Kruskal

Melvin E. Clouse Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School
Chair, Department of Radiology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The opinions expressed on RadTeams are those of the author(s); they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the editors, reviewers, or publisher.